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Will George Mitchell Change U.S.-Israel Ties?

Former Sen. George Mitchell has been chosen as President Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy. What are the pros and cons of Mitchell serving in such a role?

Mitchell does have diplomatic experience beyond that of the typical senator. After leaving the Senate, he served as a special envoy to Northern Ireland and helped to bring about a peace agreement among Protestants, Catholics, the government of Ireland, and the United Kingdom. His work was highly praised and, in the words of the Washington Post, he is considered “smart, tough and very patient, attributes that will no doubt come in handy as he attempts to work a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.”

While some might think that resolving and ending this sectarian strife would provide a good paradigm for moving forward in the Middle East, such an analogy is flawed. Many Palestinians question Israel’s legitimacy as a state. Also, there was not a refugee issue to deal with in Ireland, and Catholics did not hold a view that a victory over the Protestants was divinely inspired and mandated. Finally, the IRA did not want to conquer London. The New Republic‘s Marty Peretz has gone so far to write that Mitchell’s experience in Northern Ireland is “frankly, no experience at all.”

Jonathan Tobin of Commentary‘s Contentions writes that the precedent of the Irish peace deal is not a precedent that has much relevance to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians for a variety of reasons. Even Mitchell seems reluctant to claim that his experience in Ireland will help in the Middle East.

Does Mitchell appreciate these dimensions of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians? He seems to have a very rosy view about the prospects of peace between the two warring sides.

But, more importantly, does he fully understand the challenges he faces?

He should, since he was called upon by Bill Clinton to head a fact-finding committee to investigate the cause of the al-Aksa intifada and to explore ways to prevent violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Does this report (available here) give us any insights into his views?

The main points can be summarized:

The report described each side’s reasons for blaming the other for the outbreak of violence, and listed a series of steps the Israelis and Palestinians should take to resume negotiations. These included: 1) a 100 percent effort to stop the violence; 2) the immediate resumption of security cooperation; 3) the exchange of confidence-building measures; and 4) the speedy return to serious negotiations.

The Mitchell Report called for a cease-fire before negotiations; for the PA to condemn incitement and denounce terrorism and arrest terrorists, and for it to prevent gunmen from using Palestinian-populated areas to fire upon Israeli-populated areas and Israeli military positions. It also did not blame Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount for precipitating the violence. However, the report called for a freeze on all settlement activity including “natural growth” as a confidence-building measure. (Israel has always held that the future of the settlements was a “final status” issue to be negotiated by the two sides.)

The issue of settlements has long been a contentious one, not just between Israelis and Palestinians but also between various Israeli and American governments and, indeed, among Israelis themselves. Not all settlers are religious. Many have been induced to move there because of their affordability, and some Israelis view them as a security cordon necessary to ensure the safety of the state. Jerusalem, the most sacred city of the Jews, was very vulnerable to being cut off from the rest of the nation — as was done in the 1948 war. A collection of settlements around Jerusalem reduces the risk of its citizens being cut off and killed.

When the report was issued, many Israelis objected to the harsh view on settlements (especially the call to end their “natural growth”). On the other hand, the report did not “give” the Palestinians what many of them have long desired: the imposition of an international force in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These types of international forces have proven to be forceless when it comes to preventing terrorism but are effective in restraining Israel (far more concerned with its image than terrorists) from taking the steps it needs to in order to protect its people. Some supporters of Israel took exception to what they viewed as the neutrality of the report between the perpetrators of terrorism and those trying to defend themselves.

Such evenhandedness may gain him some points in the Arab world (as might his Lebanese heritage) but again, Marty Peretz, has a point when he writes that he can’t grasp how one can be evenhanded between political gangsters like Hamas and a democratic nation state like Israel. After the Mitchell report was released, some in Jerusalem felt Mitchell was trying to be too balanced. Mitchell recently pointed out that there were four other members of the commission whose views were also reflected in the report.

Morton Klein, head of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, shares these qualms:

“In the meetings I’ve participated in with George Mitchell, he made it clear he sympathized with the Palestinian position over the Israeli position, and blamed Israel more than the Palestinians for the lack of progress toward peace,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “We will be expressing our strong concerns that this appointment would be a mistake. It would send an additional message that Obama is going to pressure Israel more than the Palestinians.” 

Nevertheless, his appointment is being welcomed by left-of-center groups such as the Israel Policy Forum and by people such as M.J. Rosenberg, a frequent critic of Israeli and American policy in the Middle East.

The issue of settlements is very likely to arise early in the Obama administration. He has expressed concern about them in the past and Mitchell seems to concur with his view. The problem may be exacerbated if Israel’s Likud party wins the upcoming February election — as recent polls indicate. Likud has historically drawn a good deal of support from settlers in the West Bank and the party sees such settlements as necessary for Israel’s security. The handwriting may already be on the wall: Barack Obama’s views towards the Likud party are not warm ones. Questions are being raised regarding the prospects of President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud’s leader and likely future prime minister of Israel) working well together. They have successfully worked together on the issue of sanctions on Iran, but that is just one salient and non-controversial issue.

Steve Rosen, a very astute observer of both Capitol Hill and the Middle East, had some further thoughts about Mitchell:

If in fact Mitchell is appointed, it will be taken in the region as a message that Obama intends to pursue a policy less closely coordinated with Israel, and less fully under the control of the Secretary of State. Mitchell is of partly Lebanese descent, and was brought up as a Maronite Catholic. To many, he is a prominent symbol of “evenhandedness,” but he is not regarded as hostile to Israel. As a Senator, he had many supporters in the pro-Israel community, and he generally favored legislation important to the U.S.-Israel relationship. He has many friends among Israel’s leaders, and in the American pro-Israel community.

All true.

But Mitchell, as a former majority leader, also has many friends in the Senate — especially one dominated by Democrats. Will his views on settlements and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians hold sway within the Senate? Will the Senate become less supportive of Israel if one of its most esteemed former members conveys views that might lead them to be?